WWF's Ellie Yanagisawa on memory, art, and protecting our ocean

Ellie Yanagisawa looks out across a beach on Amami in the morning.
Ellie Yanagisawa kneels next to her nephew. Her grandma stands behind them. They all are on a beach in Amami.

Ellie Yanagisawa with their grandmother and nephew on Amami Oshima in 2018—their first visit to the island in 15 years.

My sisters and I used to visit with my grandmother, who lived on Amami Oshima, a small island in southwest Japan. After school, we would spend most days at the beach, chasing blue hermit crabs the size of tennis balls and swimming in the warm water. Beneath the surface was another world teeming with diverse life and so much color. The corals were healthy and vibrant. I spent hours swimming in and around the structures, observing the fish and listening in on the loud chatter of the reefs. 

On special weekends, my grandma would pack a cooler full of cold drinks, vegetables, and meat to grill. As the tide went down, she would task us with foraging for the appetizers: black sea snails from the exposed rocks and a type of seaweed called mozuku that grew in the sandy shallows, which we would eat raw with a splash of ponzu. Amami and the surrounding ocean provided us with everything we needed, as it had been doing for locals for generations.

The time on this beautiful island marked the beginning of my lifelong love affair with the ocean, which is a recurring theme in my art practice. I recognize the immense privilege of knowing where my home country is and being able to go back to it, creating these invaluable childhood memories that have helped shape the person I am today. And so, I make art to honor the reverence for the ocean that was instilled in me by the community in Amami in hopes that when people view my art, something deep stirs inside them as well—a seed planted to honor their own relationship with nature as something familial, sacred, and worthy of respect and protection.

At WWF, I bring this artful eye to the digital realm by building stories online in a visually compelling way that celebrates resilient ecosystems and the people and communities fighting for the environment. I hope the stories we tell and how we present them to you, our readers and supporters, inspire you to take action and bring others along with you on that journey.

A growing love, a growing crisis

As my love for the ocean has grown exponentially over the years, so too has my awareness of the effects of the climate crisis on marine life and island communities like Amami. It is so easy to get lost in the idea that this is a problem for me as an individual to solve, which can lead to hopelessness and oftentimes inaction. In reality, there are so many different avenues to fight for equitable change for everyone—each one valuable and necessary. It is our job to find the avenue that works for us and commit to it in solidarity with others. For me, the path is making art that provides a space to process overwhelming feelings and translate them into strength. Every piece I create helps me reimagine relationships with nature and each other.

Which path will you choose?

Explore more of Ellie Yanagisawa's work and follow their on Instagram.